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Posts Tagged John Steinbeck

Of Mice and Men in Review

Looking back on my time performing in Of Mice and Men at Park Square, I can’t help but marvel at all the studens who came and witnessed our rendition of the classic story. Nearly every morning between November 4 and December 16, groups both large and small came to the Andy Boss Thrust Stage and were down right captivated. Rarely did we have any disturbances and certainly never anything that warranted more than a quick visit from the house manager.

Credit here has to go to that house management team of Quinn Shadko and Adrian Larkin (who set clear expectations to the kids in a pre-show speech), but I think the schools themselves deserve a ton of credit as well. These were kids who had all mostly read the book already and were eager to delve further into the literature but watching it come to life. When people ask me who adapted the play, I love saying John Steinbeck. Since he also wrote this play, I believe it’s a highly constructive component to studying the novel.

This all became apparent to me over the course of the run, when we would hold post-show discussions after select performances. These twenty minute talk-backs were the chance for students to directly engage with the actors. Our conversations covered some fairly heavy topics such as gender roles, racism, the class economics of the Depression and the treatment of the mentally impaired.

But were these topics too much for teenagers to grapple with? In every instance, I was surprised by their eagerness to discuss. Such a forum seemed to give them the freedom to say just what they thought about those aforementioned topics and how our modern world is both alike and different from that of 1937. As an educational show, Of Mice and Men offers so much to sink one’s teeth into. It’s like a little microcosm of all the politics America has always struggled with. I would encourage any social studies or history teacher to check it out.

While the show is an intellectual goldmine, I also loved the fact that it offered the students so many opportunities for emotional release! I’m not even talking about all the tragedy – yes, they cried as much as the adults – but the willingness that they had to laugh, mock and cheer was admirably bold.

For an actor, it was rejuvenating. It felt like being in Elizabethan England, playing to the groundlings at the Globe. That kind of audience participation is so important as it recognizes the inherent fact that this is all make-believe and that we’re all experiencing the story. Of course you don’t want to be disrespectful to any performer, but why shouldn’t audiences “aaaaaawwwww” at the dog or jeer the bad guy? Hopefully those kids had as much fun as the actors and came away thinking about “The Theatre” as a place where they can not only reflect, but also relax.

I think this is something else our show succeeded in doing and for that, I’m so grateful I got to be involved. One of the biggest discussions in the theatre world right now is cultivating audiences from an early age. Of Mice and Men offers teenagers everything they could ask for – a riveting drama with plenty of action and comedic relief. And what do you know, they’re learning a thing or two to boot!

Just two performances left, Friday, Dec 15 and Saturday, Dec 16 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets and information here

On the Road to Empathy

George (Michael Paul Levin) and Lennie (E. J. Subkoviak)
(Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

Months ago, I had a troubling conversation with a retired literature teacher. She had taught John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men to high school students in Billings, Montana, during the late 1970s. What she remembered most was how difficult it was to draw any sense of empathy, much less sympathy, from her students for the migrant workers in the novel. Her students had considered them “a bunch of losers,” with the main characters, George and Lennie, as “the biggest losers.”

Last week I made it a point to watch Park Square Theatre’s production of Of Mice and Men during a student matinee rather than an evening or weekend show for general audiences. I attended with two school groups–a large non-diverse and a smaller diverse group. With my assigned seat on the right side, I was embedded with the smaller group; and due to the close, intimate space of the Boss Thrust Stage, I had an excellent view of the larger group.

What I witnessed was a fairly rapt student audience for that morning’s performance, with a student on my side even shushing fellow students for whispering during a particularly intense scene. And the whispering students had actually been talking about the play! Theatre-wide, students unconsciously leaned toward the actors, drawn into the key moments: What will happen to Candy’s dog? Curley’s wife? George and Lennie’s dream? Lennie himself? This was theatre at its best, when the connection between audience and actors creates the synergy for a powerful mutual experience.

Jane Froiland in a rehearsal for Of Mice and Men
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

At intermission, many students stayed in their seats to read the cast backgrounds rather than check out the concession counter or take their break in the lobby. I spoke to several to gauge their reactions: No one liked how Curley, the bullying son of the migrant workers’ boss, treated people. Some felt especially bad for the plight of the aging and disabled Candy. Others connected to the concept of dreamers hoping and trying to create better lives. With all that’s been happening in our nation’s social and political climate, it was heartening to witness young audience members relating to the play and its characters.

What I had already discovered through numerous interviews with actors as a blogger is the crucial role that theatre has played in their own personal development as much more empathetic human beings. Actors must perpetually step into someone else’s shoes to understand and become their characters. That’s certainly been true for Vincent Hannam, who plays and dislikes Curley, but had to ponder how Curley became so mean. As Jane Froiland, who plays Curley’s wife, put it in our conversation, “Theatre makes you a better person.” Theatre has the capacity to foster empathy in those on and off stage. Now that’s a powerful medium.

Of Mice and Men is on stage through Saturday, December 16. Tickets and information here.

 

Cynthia Jones-Taylor as Dotty, and Jasmine Hughes as daughter Averie
(Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

Park Square Theatre’s production of DOT is also a strong example of that power. As you watch family and friends in the play struggle to come to terms with matriarch Dotty’s steady decline from Alzheimer’s disease and reassess their own lives over the holiday season, you may recognize yourself or someone you know in those characters. The hilarity–and seriousness–lies in the knowledge that these people are also us in their messy humanness. And before the ending of DOT, we all get to step into Dotty’s shoes (no more said to prevent a spoiler).

In interviewing cast members of DOT, I’d mindfully asked how they’d personally perceived their characters before and during rehearsals. This question often brings interesting insights as to how one views people then readjusts those views as our understanding of them evolves. This happens for actors in the rehearsal room but is also very true to life in how we all relate to each other. Follow the DOT blog posts to find out how the actors responded!

As we navigate the holiday season into a new year, may we keep traveling the road towards empathy to create a more humane and hopeful world for all. Let’s keep journeying together. I look forward to seeing you at Park Square Theatre!

 

Tickets and information on DOT here

Did You Know? (Fun Facts About “Of Mice and Men”)

 

The Of Mice and Men cast
(Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

Of Mice and Men was John Steinbeck’s first attempt at writing a novel-play (a novel that could also function as a script). It has six scenes in groups of two chapters each, producing three acts.

* * *

Michael Paul Levin (George) and E. J. Subkoviak (Lennie)

Something That Happened was Steinbeck’s original title for Of Mice and Men. He chose that title to mean that the events in the book were simply “something that happened” for which nobody could be blamed. However, he changed the title to Of Mice and Men after reading Robert Burn’s poem To a Mouse, On Turning Her Up in Her Next with a Plow, which describes the plowman’s regret for accidentally destroying a mouse’s home. The title was specifically inspired by these lines: “The best laid schemes o’ mice and men/Gang aft a -gley, And lea’v us nought for grief and pain,/For promised joy.”

* * *

 Steinbeck’s dog, Max, ate an early draft of Of Mice and Men.

* * *

 

A scene from Of Mice and Men; Patrick as Candy is seated next to Boo, the pit bull who plays Candy’s dog.

In high school, Steinbeck once worked as a ranch hand; and while in college, he also worked on neighboring farms (especially Spreckels Sugar Ranch) which relied on the cheap labor of migrant workers. He’d obviously drawn from his work experiences for Of Mice and Men. For instance, this is what he cited as his inspiration for Lennie in an interview with The New York Times in 1937: “I was a bindlestiff myself for quite a spell. I worked in the same country that the story is laid in. The characters are composites to a certain extent. Lennie was a real person. He’s in an insane asylum in California right now. I worked alongside him for many weeks. He didn’t kill a girl. He killed a ranch foreman. Got sore because the boss had fired his pal and stuck a pitchfork right through his stomach. I hate to tell you how many times I saw him do it. We couldn’t stop him until it was too late.”

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Mice and Men appears on the American Library Association’s list of the Most Challenged Books of the 21st Century. Reasons cited for its banning throughout the years: promoting euthanasia, condoning racial slurs, being anti-business, containing profanity and using vulgar and offensive language. Of Mice and Men has been challenged over 50 times since its publication in 1936, but many of the bans and restrictions have been lifted. In fact, it is often required reading in high schools in America, Australia, Ireland, Britain, New Zealand and Canada.

* * *

An American metalcore band based in Orange County, California, named itself Of Mice and Men. It was founded by former band members Austin Carlile (vocalist) and Jaxin Hall (bassist) in 2009. In explaining the band’s name, Austin said, “You make plans, and they get screwed up. [Jaxin Hall] and I both had plans for life, and they both got screwed up, so now we’re making the most of what we can.”

Jaxin added, “The main theme of [Of Mice and Men] is the American Dream . . . and being self-sufficient . . . . So this was to be our self-sufficient thing that we could live off and make our own and achieve this dream.”

 

Just three evening performances left:  Thursday, December 16, Friday, December 17 and Saturday, December 16, all at 7:30 p.m. Tickets and more information here.

 

Sources: Wikipedia.com and Cliffsnotes.com

Photos: All photos of scenes from Park Square Theatre’s Of Mice and Men taken by Petronella J. Ytsma

Mina Kinukawa: Creating Steinbeck’s World

Set Designer Mina Kinukawa (center)
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men was first performed at the Music Box Theatre in New York on November 23, 1937. It was first performed on Park Square Theatre’s Proscenium Stage in 1998 as part of its Education Series. This season, Park Square’s Of Mice and Men is on the more intimate Boss Thrust Stage, necessitating a new set design. Set Designer Mina Kinukawa rose to the challenge of putting us into the play’s world: the agricultural Salinas Valley in Northern California. Specific scenes take place at the sandy bank of the Salinas River, the bunkhouse of a ranch, the room of a stable buck and one end of a barn.

Here is Mina to give us insights into her creative process:

 

Model of the bunkhouse

Previously, Of Mice and Men had been performed on the Proscenium Stage, but this season it moved to the Andy Boss Thrust Stage. What was your approach for set design to account for the change? 

From left to rt.: E.J Subkoviak as Lennie, Michael Paul Levine as George and Patrick O’Brien as Candy in Of Mice and Men
(Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

 

 

Since this was my first time designing Of Mice and Men for Park Square, I didn’t have to modify the old production. I went in knowing it was a thrust stage in almost a black box room. I really like designing for thrust stages to get close to the audience. And this production, I believe, benefits from having the actors/characters be where the audience can see and feel their emotions closer.

The voms (the corridors that “spew” people into the seating areas) and inner lobby allow for the creation of an environment that surrounds the audience. Will you be taking advantage of that? 

Director Annie Enneking and the actors did a wonderful job using the voms and the lobby space to convey distance. We set locations offstage (for example, where is the river, where is the road, etc.; locations that audience don’t see but the characters live in), and the actors run around and use the voms and lobby to create distance from the scene happening onstage.

Model of the set with tree

A tree is of particular significance on the set. Can you tell me about that? 

When researching location and historical background, I was drawn to the images of sycamores. It’s one of the first scenic elements that’s mentioned in the script, and it seemed to create an oasis in an arid landscape.

Left to right: E. J. Subkoviak as Lennie and Michael Paul Levin as George
(Photo by Petronella J. YtsmaP

At the same time, it’s almost foretelling the end of the journey that we will take with this play. Once I started designing the set, the tree took a strong place in the world that I was creating, and we all seemed to like to have it always “watching” the characters.

Model of the barn

 

 

 

 

 

Can you tell me about your journey to become a set designer?

I can say that it started in my early teen years. I was lucky to have had very good mentors who helped me with skills that I needed. I also learned to analyze plays and make them my own.

Jane Froiland as Curley’s wife and E. J. Subkoviak as Lennie
(Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

Once I graduated from undergrad, I knew I wanted to have some “real” experience before going to grad school and had an opportunity to work in a scene design studio, first as an intern before I was hired on. Then I got a scholarship to go to grad school and got my MFA. I was in Southern California so naturally started to have more chances to work in films and had a blast. It was not an easy environment, but I enjoyed it very much. Very similar to theatre, it’s all about the team of people you work with! Then life took me to Minnesota, and I have started to connect with theatres and meet and work with great theatre artists here.

Tickets and more information here 

E. J. Subkoviak on Playing Lennie in “Of Mice and Men”

This season, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men returns to Park Square Theatre as a new production on the intimate Andy Boss Thrust Stage with limited performances for general audience from November 9 to December 16. Of Mice and Men will also be seen by school groups during student matinees.

Playing the large but childlike Lennie, who is highly dependent on his fellow migrant worker friend George due to a mental disability, is E. J. Subkoviak. Here is E. J. to tell us more about himself and his role in Of Mice and Men.

When did you first play Lennie, and what was your relationship with Steinbeck’s novel before being cast as Lennie?

Like a lot of people, Of Mice and Men was one of the first books I read in high school, and it was certainly one I never forgot, especially after reading the Cliff’s Notes. I was often asked, based on my height and basic size (exact numbers available through the costume shop), if I had ever played Lennie; and it wasn’t until about eight years ago, when Park Square was in need of a new one, that I got to play him for the first time. This will be my fourth time playing Lennie at this same theater, so I haven’t shrunk much.

George (Michael Paul Levin) and Lennie (E. J. Subkoviak) (Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

What’s the biggest challenge for you in playing Lennie?

A two-show day, maybe? Honestly, the character is so deeply in my blood now that it feels so easy to bring out. Maybe the first time I did it, it was somewhat of a challenge to figure out, based on each scene, what exactly his mind is doing and how it works in general; but it was all a real labor of love.

Apart from that, playing Lennie, as much as I love it and had been waiting to do it so long, is not much different of an approach than playing anything else as a character actor. The real hard part, at least in the primary story of Of Mice and Men, I’d say, is George, as is the case in most buddy stories where you have a straight man and some manner of an eccentric. The straight man rarely ever gets as much credit or attention (poor Dick Smothers), but he has a hell of a job to do in the whole relationship. And we’re blessed to have my longtime friend Michael Paul Levin in the role as he, as the father of such a child, was able to recognize in the script evidence of autism in Lennie. (The whole notion of autism, and even the word, didn’t exist back in John Steinbeck’s day.) This helped answer some of those questions about his mind and how it works even more and was of great benefit to us all. And, of course, playing out this story as a man with an autistic son is a great emotional challenge for him, and he deserves a medal for it.

What may change in your approach as a result of being on the Boss Thrust rather than the Proscenium stage with this season’s production?

The tricky part will be staging it in the thrust format of the stage with audience on three different sides, but our director, Annie Enneking, is a pro and is smartly considering and playing with these sightlines.

The good news is that the smaller space heightens the intimacy of these scenes, so the personal relationships and the danger and intensity of the piece become more magnified.

It also means less makeup for us. That’s always a relief.

E. J. (center) and other cast members in an early rehearsal in the Boss Rehearsal Hall.
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

What do you want audiences to take away from their experience of seeing Of Mice and Men? Is it different for an adult versus student audience?

I would say the basic idea of empathy, which seems to be fading fast away at this particular time in our history (just read any internet “comment” section). This is a play about mostly outcasts–outcasts trapped in a cold, harsh world and how they survive. Chances are everyone personally identifies with one or more of these outcasts, I think; and that has made this story so relatable for so long. (Even the character of Curley’s wife was fleshed out much more by Steinbeck for the play version, at the request of the play’s producer at the time.)

Achieving that empathy can be more of a challenge for a younger audience, as we’ve discovered in the past. Young people will often laugh at inappropriate times in a tragic story like this, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they find it funny; it’s often just a nervous reaction to a tense situation. (Lennie does this, too.)

How did you end up becoming an actor?

A hastily thought-out deal with the dark lord Lucifer that I’ll always regret.

Actually, my parents insisted I do something other than watch TV one summer when I was about 13, so I joined this acting troupe that traveled from park to park in my hometown of Madison, Wisconsin, and performed fairy tales, melodramas, and other family plays. Somehow, I caught the bug. Along with the mosquitoes in my mouth.

E. J. as Nero Wolfe, with Derek Dirlam as Archie Goodwin in Might as Well Be Dead
(Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

What have been some of your favorite roles, and what other characters do you hope to play someday?

Of course, playing the corpulent crime-fighter Nero Wolfe for Park Square has been a great honor and a fulfillment of my childhood dream of being a detective. It is flattering to be recognized by members of the Nero Wolfe “cult” when I am out and about. (As it has been explained to me: Sherlock Holmes is Star Trek; Nero Wolfe is Doctor Who. I’m very, very cool with that.)

There are a lot of roles I did in college that I’d love to replay as a (bigger) adult: Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Jonathan Brewster (the Boris Karloff role) in Arsenic and Old Lace, the ghost of John Barrymore in I Hate Hamlet and Owen the evil Klansman in The Foreigner, a true comic villain for the times we live in.

Speaking of that, and since I spent all of 2016 not acting but watching the news and getting depressed like so many of us, I have been looking for more projects I could do that deal with civil rights and other issues that are so much on our minds these days. Fortunately, Of Mice and Men qualifies in many ways, and I’m glad to be doing it again now.

Twelve evening performances through December 16. Tickets and more info at http://parksquaretheatre.org/box-office/shows/2017-18/of-mice-and-men/

 

 

 

 

. . . . And A Dog Named Boo

Boo: short for Taboo; sometimes also affectionately called Boosker Du (like the band Husker Du) (Photo by Annette Diana Design; www.Annettedianadesign.com)

In John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, performed on Park Square Theatre’s Boss Thrust Stage from November 9 to December 16, the treatment of migrant worker Candy’s dog represents how everyone in the play is afraid to be treated as well. Fortunately, Boo, who plays that dog, lives in the loving home of theatre professionals Ben McGovern and Jessie Scarborough-Ghent. Jessie is serving as his handler for this production.

It wasn’t always “the good life” for Boo. Boo is a pit bull rescued by Midwest Animal Rescue & Services in Brooklyn Park. He’d had a rough start in Indiana, being kept in a kennel that was too small for him so that his back legs couldn’t properly develop. As a result, he has a back leg limp and takes glutamine supplements. Boo also used to have a bald spot on his head from rubbing against the kennel. His docile nature suggests that he could have been raised to be the bait dog for a fighting ring or simply mistreated by negligent owners. No one knows for certain.

Ben first took Boo in as a foster dog about six years ago but fell in love with and adopted him (this is ironically deemed a “failed foster”). He became Jessie’s dog, too, when she moved in a few years ago. She was the one who’d answered Park Square Theatre’s call for dogs to audition and brought him in.

Boo is greeted by Director Annie Enneking at an early  rehearsal. (Photo by Connie Shaver)

“This will be Boo’s first stage appearance,” said Jessie. “He’s really mellow and well-behaved–he came already knowing sit and lay down–so I thought he’d be a great stage dog. He’s older now so doesn’t need as much physical activity. Getting attention from people is actually his best exercise. Also, whoever needs to control him just needs to have food; he’ll be very motivated. We’re using turkey training treats so there’ll be no crunching sounds.”

 

 

When not in rehearsals or on stage, Boo will be busy playing at Minnehaha Dog Park in Minneapolis, hanging out with his Rhodesian ridgeback buddy, laying together with fellow pet dweller Finska the cat or snuggling with his humans.

Boo has mastered his role as you can see in this photo from the final dress rehearsal. (Photo by Connie Shaver)

“That’s his favorite activity,” Jessie told me. “He sits and keeps pushing himself into you. I tell him, ‘You really can’t get any closer.’ He is so content just snuggling.”

Another favorite family activity is grabbing a meal at their dog-friendly neighborhood restaurant, The Howe. The dog menu includes a frozen smoked beef marrow bone that Boo can chew clean in three hours. According to Jessie, “Afterwards Boo passes gas and looks at his butt as if to ask, ‘Was that me?'”

Boo also loves toys. He enjoys slobbering all over his peanut butter-filled Kong, but his personal favorite is a stuffed rat. It’s six inches long and no longer white.

“We’re hesitant to get him stuffed animals because he chews them apart,” Jessie said. “But he hasn’t ripped up his rat. It isn’t very realistic either. He picks it up and shakes it. Or he licks it. It doesn’t squeak; squeaky toys get destroyed.”

Because pit bulls are stereotyped as mean, aggressive dogs, they are hard to place. Lavendar magazine’s 2017 Pet Issue, which features the nonprofit organization Save-a-Bull, reported that “approximately 75 percent of municipal shelters euthanize pit bulls immediately upon intake” and that “a recent study by the American People organization reported a 93 percent euthanasia rate for pit bulls and only one in 600 finds a forever home.”

Once people own or volunteer to rescue and care for a pit bull, they tend to become advocates for the breed to help break the myths and stereotypes about them. Jessie herself can’t say enough good things about Boo: “Boo has changed our lives. He is the best therapy dog. You can look in his eyes and see how much he loves you. He’s the best and the best friend.”

Boo and Jessie
(Photo by Annette Diana Design; see www.Annettedianadesign.com)

PIT BULL RESCUE EVENTS IN THE TWIN CITIES:

  • Save-a-Bull Rescue will be at Urban Tails Pet Supply, 2106 Lyndale Ave. S., Mpls., on November 11 (3-5 pm), December 2 (3-5 pm) and January 20 (12-2 pm) and at Chuck & Don’s, 4723 County Road 101, Minnetonka, on November 18 (12-2 pm).
  • Minnesota Pit Bull Rescue will be at For Pet’s Sake, 11724 Ulysses St. NE, Blaine, on November 12 (3-5 pm) and December 9, 11 am – 1 pm).

 

 

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